Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions

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Ken Florian
Ken Florian
Ken Florian's Blog
On March 7, 2019
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We sometimes hear advisors assert that they don’t need training in grief support because their client base skews younger. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

First of all, remember that grief is triggered by any break in attachment. In other words, any life transition. So a client or a client’s child will grieve when they go to college, break up with a significant other, don’t make the sports team or get knocked out of a competition earlier than hoped, have a pet die, lose a job or get hired for a new one, get married, move to another part of the country, and so much more. In addition, over 1/3 of college students are within two years of the death of a family member or friend, and just over 30% of college students experience a death each year. This figure has always been partly due to accidents, but is increasing due to the rise in suicide rates and opioid overdoses. It is not just elderly parents or grandparents who die; it is too often classmates, friends, or siblings. 

As advisors, ignoring these facts serves no one. Acknowledging and addressing them places you front and center with your clients as the go-to resource for the entire family, not just the parents. So what do you do? 

Consider developing a program for teens in your office. Hold a one-hour session on financial literacy periodically and invite the high-school-aged children and grandchildren of all your clients. (Need more than information to attract them? Try pizza. It seems to be the Universal Attractant for teens!) Cover how to set up a budget, the facts about compound interest and how that affects both student loans and savings programs. Talk about accounts to begin putting money aside now, and teach them how to use the Wolfram Alpha Retirement Calculator. The quants in your crowd will especially love it, and best of all, it's an app. What’s not to like?  

Then include a brief segment on the grief. Acknowledge the many grief triggers, and the fact that so few people learn how to help themselves or each other get through it. Consider giving them the Corgenius book “A Friend Indeed: Help Those You Love When They Grieve,” telling them to keep it with them so they know what to say and do when a friend is going through a loss or transition. (Of course, it will also help them in their own grief, but it’s easier to put the focus on what is often so important for young people – helping their friends.) Among others, another potential resource is the Young Adult Grief Camps, which are specifically intended for ages 18 -22 and hosted by Actively Moving Forward. 

Finally, let the teens know they can always come to you with questions. If the questions or situation is non-financial and out of your sphere of expertise, you will help them get the answers they need. 

Following a protocol like this helps build your business for the future, ensures better retention of assets when they pass to the next generation, and builds personal satisfaction as you know you are making a difference in young people’s lives.

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On February 11, 2019
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Our speaking engagements put us in contact with many of you smack dab in the mayhem of one of the stock market’s most volatile 60-day periods in memory and the worst December since 1929.  Clients have a "relationship" with their money, and when that deeply personal relationship ends or takes a unilateral relational break, they grieve. So when this period happened, and when it inevitably happens again, what do you say to frightened, angry, grieving clients?

Many advisors told us they said (in language that was sometimes more colorful to emphasize the point): "I know how you feel. My portfolio is doing the same thing, and it hurts!"  We saw similar words in various sources, but the gist of the message was the same: "I get it. I know exactly what you're going through because I have money in the market, too."

I understand the good intent. You want to reassure clients they are not alone in their sorrow over wild volatility and steep market declines, since your portfolio took the same proportional hit. Still, the basic grief support principle holds: each person’s grief is unique, even it’s a similar loss. Saying “I know how you feel” during market volatility is as unhelpful as saying it when your client’s parent dies. 

Seek First to Understand

The old saw "seek first to understand" is precisely the correct tool to use here. It is fine to acknowledge that you have a similar experience, but don’t stop there. Allow for each client’s uniqueness by asking questions that allow them to tell their story and get you on the same team. 

One option could be something like this: “I’m a financial professional, but when things like this happens in the market, everyone gets twitchy. I know it's not rational when I feel that knot in my stomach. I know it’s not going to last because I always allocate every client’s portfolio just like my own, in ways designed to withstand these market swings. But logic doesn't dictate emotions, and so I still feel it. Do you feel it that way when you hear the market news, or how is your reaction different?” This helps allay the fear and blame, because you are treating the client’s portfolio as if it were your own. It also creates a sense of teamwork and problem-solving. 

If you rode out the 2008/2009 mayhem with clients, you can include: "In your mind, how is this one similar or different from 2008?  Are there things we did or discussed then that might be helpful for us this time?"

Then you can follow up with: “So tell me, what is the worst that you could imagine happening to you financially right now?” Keep asking “What else?” and saying “Tell me more” until you have all the major fears on the table. Then ask, “Since these are your worst fears, what can we do together to keep you safe? I think we’ve done good work together to set you up to weather the storm, but we can always tweak things if you want. Perhaps we should stay in closer touch during this time, too. What seems right to you?”

When you ask open-ended questions like these, you find out what's going on in their heads.  Knowing those things doesn't make money come back. It doesn't mean you haven't got work to do to help them sort out their choices and stay the course. But it might make the difference between clients switching away from you vs. ensuring that you are moving in lock-step together through frightening times.

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On December 13, 2018
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Financial expertise alone is insufficient to gain and retain clients. Clients expect more. They want you to understand their personal experience, and be equipped to walk them through whatever life throws at them. Can you?  

Welcome to our new complimentary podcast series, Clients for Life.  Click here to listen to our inaugural interviews.  Each of these short interviews features an advisor who completed the Corgenius Master Class on guiding clients through the most difficult transitions of their lives. They describe the skills and best practices they implemented in their firms, both large and small, that are having the most impact on client satisfaction, loyalty, and referrals.  

Take a few minutes to listen and pick up some new ideas on how you, too, can more confidently serve clients through the toughest times of their lives.  The podcast series is also available here as an RSS Feed and on iTunes via the Podcast app (Search for "Clients for Life"). 

We’d love to hear what you think of our new series. Please email us with your comments and ideas.

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On September 25, 2018
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Christine Olson, a mother in Florida, experienced a nightmare. Her 22-year-old daughter died in a motorcycle accident. After her son found out there’d been an accident, it took 6½ hours of calling hospitals and frantic searching for Christine to receive confirmation that her daughter had died. The pain continued when she was told her daughter’s body was in the morgue, but it was closed for the night, and she would have to come back the next day to see her. She later found out that according to the National Association of Emergency Medicine, the average time nationally that it takes to notify the next of kin is 6 hours, and sometimes it takes up to a day. In her case, her daughter’s address was outdated on the driver’s license, so police had no idea who to contact

This mom used her excruciating experience to found a non-profit organization aimed at preventing other families from experiencing the horror she endured. The organization is called TIFF – To Inform Families First. It provides a secure way that people can enter their next-of-kin contact information into a database that is only accessible to law enforcement personnel. When there is an accident, the police use the driver’s license or state ID numbers to scan the database, and they contact next of kin immediately.

TIFF is currently is available only in six states – Florida, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and Tennessee. Over thirteen million people are registered in Florida, and the organization is working to get the database active in every state.

For clients or their family members who live in these six states, let them know about TIFF now. For those who don’t, keep track of how the database is spreading across the country so you can notify clients and their families as soon as it is in force where they live. 

In the meantime, encourage clients to have ICE (In Case of Emergency) information in their phone, in a wallet or purse next to their driver’s license, on a tag that can be attached to car keys, in the glove compartment of the car, on a Road ID tag attached to their shoes or watchband, etc. The more readily accessible the information is, the more quickly family can be notified of a crisis. 

When you educate clients about resources like this, you let them know you care about more than just their money. You care about them and their lives. 

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On August 20, 2018
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One relatively less labor-intensive way to support grieving clients is to create a dedicated page on your website to share online resources on coping with loss.  We’ve collected some links that we recommend to get you started on your list.

Alliance of Hope provides healing support for people coping with the shock, excruciating grief and complex emotions that accompany the loss of a loved one to suicide.  Also, check out The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They provide education and prevention, but also provide support groups and after-care when a suicide occurs. 

The Trevor Project is designed for the LGTBQ community. It focuses on prevention, providing a suicide hotline, as well as information, education, and support after a suicide occurs. Suicide rates are much higher in this community.

Grief Share provides in-person support meetings in a number of places around the country. They describe themselves as “a friendly, caring group of people who will walk alongside you through one of life’s most difficult experiences.” They offer the option of a daily “encouragement email”.

The Caring App is aimed at caregivers who provide home care to family. Whether young or elderly, dementia or other physical or mental conditions, this app serves as a how-to-guide that recommends high quality, low-cost products, services, and strategies. 
Compassionate Friends is a national organization organizes support groups around the country for parents whose child has died. All leaders have been through it themselves, and the group offers comfort, acknowledgment, and hope.  

Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) an unmoderated email-based support group and participants must register. Many people caring for a loved one who is disabled, ill, or living with dementia, find support and understanding in the conversations with others in similar situations. For support specific to Alzheimer’s, check out the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org  

We hope your clients find these resources helpful and healing as they go through their journey, generating gratitude and loyalty to you. If you know of other resources that your clients have benefitted from, please email us at hello@corgenius.com and we will be sure to share them. 

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On July 1, 2018
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We have an unprecedented crisis happening in our country. Every day, 115 people die of an opioid overdose. From 1999 to 2016, 350,000 people have died. A recent survey by the AP and Center for Public Affairs Research found that 1 in 10 Americans know a relative or close family member who died of an opioid overdose.  In April, the Surgeon General issued the first national health advisory since 2005, urging families and friends of addicts to carry naloxone, the drug that can reverse the acute effects of an overdose and give a greater chance of survival.

 

Clearly, we have a huge public health problem with more people dying per day due to opioids than were dying of AIDS at the height of that epidemic. Just as we found the will and resources to combat AIDS over 30 years ago, we need to do it now for opioids.  
 
In addition to scope, there is another aspect of these two epidemics that is similar. When people died of AIDS, their family members were often reluctant to tell others the cause of death because of the stigma. The same is true with the opioid crisis, leaving families unsupported and isolated. It’s bad enough that our society knows so little about how to effectively support the survivors of a loved one’s death; with a stigmatized death, the situation is exponentially worse.  
 
Many people don’t realize that opioid addicts generally begin taking the drugs to relieve intense pain from a medical condition, not to get high. Yet one of the ways opioids work is to increase the levels of dopamine in the body, resulting in a feeling of euphoria while relieving some of the pain. Even if all the pain is not relieved, that which remains seems tolerable because of the underlying “high”.  
 
Addiction begins when the drug rewires the reward centers of the brain, causing the person to perceive anything less than the euphoria as being painful and creating a physiological craving for more of the drug. Tolerance requires higher doses, the euphoria increases, the drug continues to affect the brain, and the addict sinks into an ever-deepening need for opioids just to feel normal. For those who try to reduce or quit, withdrawal symptoms are intense, and they often give up, relapsing into drug abuse to eliminate the pain. It reaches the point where an addict will do anything to get the next hit. 
 
How to Help
 
After an overdose death, the grief is profound.  The family loses a beloved family member.  They lose the future they hoped for with that person and the unique place that person held in the family structure. They have exhausted themselves with worry and attempts to help. There are feelings of guilt and inadequacy that the loved one couldn’t be saved. These reactions are combined with anger at the lack of resources for addiction and resentment towards the addict who wasn’t able to kick the habit despite whatever help the family could offer. At the same time, rather than the outpouring of support they would receive if their loved one died of something like cancer, the support is muted, tentative, or absent, replaced by judgment or simply the would-be comforter’s inability to know what to say.   
 
Here are a few suggestions on how you can help a client, friend or family member dealing with this kind of loss:  

  • Be there.  Listen to their stories of the addiction and eath over and over again.  Rather than attempting to cheer them up, offer a strong shoulder and a listening ear.
  • Share memories of the good times with the person who died, so they can remember the life as well as the death. Acknowledge the void that can never be filled in the same way again. 
  • Do concrete things to help. Run errands for them, take them to coffee, or help address the thank-you envelopes. Take younger siblings/children out for a “treat” afternoon that gives them extra attention while allowing parent(s) time and space to grieve, or whatever you can think of that they may need. 
  • Don’t ask “How are you?” Instead, ask “What do you wish people knew about what this is like for you?” or “What kind of a day is it today – an up day, a down day, or an all-over-the-place day?” 
  • Don’t go away. Their grief will not be over in a couple of weeks or months, as our society seems to assume. Especially be present on days like the birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, all of which will be extremely painful.  
  • Research local support groups such as Not One More, which has chapters in 15 locations; GRASP, which has meetings in 24 states; or more localized groups like Lifeline for Loss in Indianapolis, IN. Although not all organizations have a nationwide database, find out what is available in your community to help grieving families reduce their isolation. 
     
    Whether a client, friend or family, don’t let the stigma of opioid addiction cloud your ability to companion people you care about when they are grieving. Be there for them, especially in these tragic situations when so many others disappear.  
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On April 11, 2018
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Dear Reader, To understand this essay, please first
watch the video on which I here comment. 


Let me be clear at the outset: it was Terrance's prerogative to make his end-of-life decisions as he saw fit. It was his prerogative to include his wife Amanda in those decisions apparently as co-equal partner during the long final chapter of his life. With that firmly in mind, let's consider what she has to say about that journey.

In this Ted Talk film (“We need a heroic narrative of death”, October 15, 2013), Amanda Bennett is a fine story teller, occasionally poetic in her own voice and concluding with a quote from and for the ages. There are nuggets of utility in here and her final thesis -- there is a way to have a courageous and graceful goodbye -- is imperative to absorb. Her narrative has an almost connect-a-quote corniness about it despite its obviously heartfelt and sincerely sorrowful nature. However, because most of us know that a long and gradual decline is how we will die, Ms. Bennett's notion of "hope” is flawed, despite some utility.

She says "hope is part of our DNA as humans" but inaccurately and unhelpfully conflates acceptance of her husband’s approaching death with "you're prohibiting me from hoping." Her statement, "it's not a bug, it's a feature," is an intellectual sleight of hand that serves no one because she and her husband were, in fact, in profound denial that Terrance would soon die until the final six days of his life.

Again she says, "[I hoped], you might say irrationally, that I could keep him alive forever." I do say "irrationally" because hoping for what one can reasonably know is impossible is denial. That circle can't be squared. Although Bennett insists she was “redefining hope", in reality she kept extending a singular definition of hope (in this case a cure) until it was long-past possible. There is nothing in her narrative to suggest she was "redefining" hope.

She continues by asserting that "what the experts call denial I call hope." False. Once again intellectual and emotional sleight of hand. "Redefining hope" actually means that hope exists until we take our last breath or until our loved one takes her last breath. But, and this is the necessary and essential notion, hope changes. Initially we hope for a cure. Then, when we know that a cure is impossible, we hope to live until our daughter's wedding or our trip to Norway is complete or we finish painting the boat, or . Then, when that hope is fulfilled, or becomes impossible to realize, our hopes change again, until the final hope is to die in the presence of our most treasured loved ones in peace and in as little pain as possible.

That is what redefining hope looks like.

Here is one more example of the sleight of hand she practiced on herself: She claims "our system isn't built to accommodate it [hope and a graceful goodbye]." Actually, there were systemic accommodations available for Terrance and Amanda and they proactively chose to reject the most obvious one, the services of hospice. That's a textbook, Brittanica-grade example of denial.

Amanda and Terrance's correct response to his oncologist's assertion that "better days are ahead" was "I'll discuss that with my rabbi or priest or spiritual leader. As for you, medical profession, tell me the truth, please. Do so with warmth, compassion, humility, and sorrow for me and what you cannot achieve, but just do it."

Indicting an entire group of people is seldom efficacious and never fair but for expediency I do so here: The medical profession is flagrantly wrong to use phrases like "there's nothing more we can do for you” (the dying person) because there is always more we can do for a dying person. It may be true that there is nothing we can medically do but there is always something we can do to achieve Ms. Bennett's goal for each of us "… bid her farewell the Alexandria you are losing."


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On February 8, 2018
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February is upon us, and a significant number of your clients are dreading it. No, it isn’t the cold, or the dreariness of winter. It’s Valentine’s Day.

In the past, this holiday of love was a day or warmth, surprises, celebration, and hugs. Spouses anticipated receiving a special card, candy or a carefully selected gift, extra attention, and reassurance of their lovability. Yet for widowed spouses, the day is cold and bleak. Hearing the ads and watching couples make goo-goo eyes at each other rubs the scab raw and thrusts the cold spear deeper into broken hearts.

The worst thing you can do is ignore your clients in this painful time. Remember, many people avoid calling on days like Valentine’s Day. That leaves them feeling even more alone and isolated. At the very least, send a card with a small gift. For instance: “No gift could make up for Jim’s absence. Still, I hope you can enjoy a few chocolates from someone who cares. We are thinking of you today.” Or “A single rose in memory of Karen. Her love for you and for so many people lives on in our hearts forever.

If you really want to make a long-term impression, consider organizing an event early in the day for widowed clients. Invite them to a breakfast or brunch, and do it up right. Have a nice meal, an attractive centerpiece, and attentive staff, so they feel pampered. When all are seated, welcome the group, saying you know Valentine’s Day can be difficult for widowed people and you wanted to give them something fun to anticipate along with the pain the day is sure to bring. Print a list of questions for discussion and place it at each table to break the ice and get them sharing with each other. Examples: Tell how you and your spouse met each other. Tell one thing that drove you crazy about your spouse. Tell one well-meaning thing someone said to you after your spouse died that was unintentionally hurtful to you.

After the meal, thank everyone for coming and tell them you plan to make this an annual event so they can return the next year. Perhaps have a drawing for the centerpieces at each table. As your guests leave, give them a small token such as a real or chocolate flower. Tell them you will call in a week or two to see what they liked best and if they have any suggestions for how you could improve the event next year. Then, of course, do call and take their feedback seriously.

These suggestions bracket the range of possibilities. The important thing is to be there for your clients in ways that most other people aren’t. When you demonstrate that you understand their grief and you care about more than just the money, you gain a client for life. And when their friends and associates are widowed, what will they tell them about their uncommonly wise and compassionate advisor? 

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On January 19, 2018
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New FINRA regulations that passed in 2017 will take effect on February 5. One major provision requires every broker-dealer to make a good-faith attempt to keep on file an alternate contact form for every client. This will function somewhat like the medical HIPAA forms, giving permission for a specific person who can be called if the client can’t be reached or there is an emergency. I’m delighted to see this development, as I’ve been calling for this protocol for many years as a way to protect both your clients and your firm.

I believe, however, that the FINRA rule is only a start. As you may recall, I developed a Corgenius Diminishing Capacity LetterTM. It goes beyond the minimum required for compliance with the FINRA rule, since it allows clients to name more than one person plus the powers of attorney and it gives broader permissions for contacting those in the client’s trusted circle when there is a potential problem.

My simple template is as follows:

“I, [client name], give [advisor names] of [company name and location] permission to call my Durable Powers of Attorney and the following people if they suspect any diminishment in my physical, cognitive, mental, or psychological capacity.”

The form then has space to list at least three people, with their names, addresses, relationship to the client, and contact information. Your clients sign and date it, and you keep it in their files. Every year, you revisit the form to see whether names or items of contact information need updating.

With this form, you have greater leeway, as an emergency or inability to reach the client is not the triggering factor. If you have noticed worrisome signs and suspect a problem in any of these areas, you have explicit permission to call others, including those the client designated as having decision-making power over financial and healthcare matters.

In that call, of course, remember not to make a diagnosis, i.e. “I think your mom might have dementia” or “Your dad appears to be in a serious depression.” Instead, list what you see. “I’m calling to let you know I observed some disturbing signs in my appointments with your mom. She asked the same question three times in 25 minutes, even though I’d answered it each time. She has been unable to follow multi-step directions and forgets decisions we made at the last appointment. There may be an underlying medical cause, and I want you to be aware of it so you or other family members can watch for similar things and take appropriate steps. In the meantime, I am contacting my compliance department to make sure we are protecting your mom’s financial well-being in case there is an issue with her capacity.” 

Be sure to document your observations and the phone call itself as evidence that you are doing everything you can to protect your client. This may also help you connect to other family members, who see you as a comprehensive advisor who cares about more than just your clients’ money. Be a wise guide for your clients, even in cases of diminished capacity.

 

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On November 6, 2017
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In the past, the holiday season was a time of warmth, surprises, celebration, and hugs. Yet for grieving people, these days are cold and bleak. Hearing holiday songs, reading the ads, and walking into festively decorated stores only serves to rub the scab raw and thrusts the cold spear deeper into broken hearts. 

The worst thing you can do is ignore your recently bereaved clients in this painful time. The second worst thing is sending them the same “Happy Holidays” card that you send to everyone else. Do something a little extra for a grieving client that acknowledges the loss.  Send a card wishing Peace instead of Happiness. Consider sending a small gift with a card that reads: “Nothing could make up for Jim’s absence this season. Still, I hope you can enjoy this small gift from someone who cares. We are thinking of you, especially at this time of year.”  Or “A single rose in memory of Karen. Her love for you and for so many people lives on in our hearts forever.” Or “It may feel out of place as everyone raises a glass in celebration this holiday season. We hope that in your own way, you can use this little bottle of Nate’s favorite wine to toast the memories of past holidays with him and the love that you carry with you through all the holidays yet to come. We’re raising a glass in his honor with you.”

If you really want to make a long-term impression, consider organizing an event early in December for clients whose loved one has died. You can segment if you’d like, i.e. by inviting your widowed clients. Host them for a breakfast or brunch, and do it up right. Have a nice meal, an attractive centerpiece, and attentive staff, so they feel pampered. When all are seated, welcome the group, saying you know the holidays can be difficult for grieving people and you wanted to give them something fun to anticipate along with the pain the coming weeks are sure to bring.  

Print a list of questions for discussion and have them placed at each table to break the ice and get them sharing with each other. Introduce it by saying that everyone grieves in their own way, so what one person finds helpful may not be helpful to someone else. However, most grieving people do find some comfort in sharing experiences. Invite them to pick one card at a time and go around the table with answers, accepting whatever someone else has to say.

Examples for the questions: Tell one thing you loved about the person who died, and one thing that drove you crazy. Tell one well-meaning thing that someone said to you after the death that was unintentionally hurtful to you. Tell one thing you wish people would do or not do around you this holiday season.  

After the meal, thank everyone for coming and tell them you plan to make this an annual event so they can return the next year. Perhaps have a drawing for the centerpieces at each table. Tell them you will call after the holidays to see what they liked best and if they have any suggestions for how you could improve the event next year. Then, of course, do call and take their feedback seriously.  

These suggestions bracket the range of possibilities. The important thing is to be there for your clients in ways that most other people aren’t. When you demonstrate that you understand their grief and you care about more than just the money, you gain a client for life. And when their friends and associates experience a death in the family, what will your clients tell them about their uncommonly wise and compassionate advisor?

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